On Looking Busy
(an edited version of my sermon on the same topic for 11 August 2013)
In the spoof spy film “Johnny English” there is one scene where the evil pretender to the British Crown is readying a look-alike Archbishop of Canterbury for the Coronation ceremony by having him fitted with an appropriate silicon mask. On the so-called Archbishop’s bottom, there is tattooed “Jesus is coming – Look busy”. In terms of today’s gospel reading, behind this schoolboy humour there may even be an unintended serious point to be made from the joke.
If there should ever happen to be a day of judgement, surely it would be our day-to-day attitudes and actions rather than our pious self claims that would reveal where our true allegiance lay.
Theologians and church leaders are by no means agreed as to what Jesus was referring to when he is reported as talking of a time of judge
ment. The metaphors Jesus uses certainly draw attention to a time when we are all called to account, yet it is far from clear whether this is referring to the physical death we must all face – or something else entirely.
However for this passage at least this is irrelevant. Jesus’ statement that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also“, seems to remind us that our actions and attitudes reveal where our priorities lie. Even if the judgement we face, is only that of our fellows, it really won’t matter which cause we say we embrace, our lives will make their own declaration.
This is not so much theology as common sense. For example I can (and do) wear two Rotary badges on my sports jacket, but even those badges would not be enough to convince my fellow Rotarians that I should be wearing them. Rotary is supposed to stand for Service above self, so it is only if I am prepared to try to live out this ideal that I would have any chance of being recognised as a genuine Rotarian.
Similarly we cannot assume that once we have signed up to Church membership, that we will be recognised as those who are committed to Christ and his principles. Ex US President Jimmy Carter was once quoted as saying: “If you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, then STOP saying you want a country based on Christian principles because you don’t”.
But of course this is only one of many dimensions to Church membership. For example the proposed modified statement in the law book of the New Zealand Methodist Church includes the following phrases:
“ The standards on which membership of the Church is based are set out in the Church’s Mission Statement and its accompanying principles, where, in particular, it is stated that `every member is a minister.’”
I would imagine most mainline Churches would be comfortable with accepting similar statements.
But just remember this. The law book is in effect a public declaration of what is intended. If the vast majority of Church members are not demonstrably behaving as ministers and embodying the Church’s mission statement, the declaration is null and void.
One of my favourite Church stories for young people (in one version) goes as follows. (I am sorry I do not know the author of the original version).
A young man once set out for a walk in the forest. Unaccustomed to the outdoors, and having no GPS he started to lose his sense of direction. As the minutes turned into hours, he began to feel the first pangs of hunger. As a city dweller he assumed that sooner or later he would happen upon a food store, perhaps, he hoped, even a McDonalds. And – would you believe it – (hmm!) – just when he was beginning to lose hope – a notice board on a stake in the bushes. “ Fresh bread, baked daily, follow the arrow”. Delighted and rather relieved, the young man lined up on the arrow and set off. And again, and I am rather hoping you won’t doubt what I am telling you, there in a small clearing was a house, with a big sign outside proclaiming “Fresh bread baked daily” – and then underneath in red letters “We never close” Feeling the saliva gathering in his mouth the young man knocked on the door.
Sure enough the door opened – and a rather severe looking woman stood there. “Well?” she said.
“I saw your signs”’ started the young man.
The expression on the woman’s face changed to fleeting, and even smug smile of pride. “Yes, good signs aren’t they?”
“Well, can I buy some bread?” The young man continued.
“No!” said the woman firmly. “There is no bread!”.
“But the sign?” he protested.
“We don’t make bread,” said the woman, “we only make the signs”.
The young man was incredulous. “Never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life!” he said ,“A sign promising bread – then no bread!?”
“Nothing new in that”, said the woman. “Last week I went to a Church and it said “all welcome” on the notice board. I went in and I wasn’t”.
Only a story perhaps, yet we should remember that such a mismatch between what we claim to stand for, and what others see that our faith represents, becomes the public reality of our mission statement. Just as many in the West discount Islam as a faith worth following because of the actions of a few suicide bombers, those looking at our Church from the outside sometimes reject our faith because they are not attracted to the actions and attitudes of those they associate with Christianity.
After all Mahatma Gandhi once claimed that the tipping point for him in rejecting Christianity, despite all his admiration of Christ, was being turned away from entering a Church in South Africa on the grounds that no coloureds were allowed.
In one sense today’s gospel passage is an alternative answer to the age old question about how we might find a meaningful life. Last week’s passage was more directly about greed, but did you notice that Jesus there seemed more concerned about the effect greed has on the greedy one rather than the unfairness greed imposes on others. Here a parallel theme is developed further – this time questioning not the dangers of greed, but rather the dangers of inattention to the important faith response tasks of the day.
We might also note that reminding us about the need to give to the poor suggests Jesus is thinking here about our moral and ethical responses to need. Jesus suggests in his parable that we should not put off a response to such duties. I don’t know how you see the situation but I would contend we only have to look around us today to see that inattention to the challenges of the Church is still a typical characteristic – and if we follow today’s parable and accept the reported teaching of Jesus, we can only assume that this inattention can have consequences.
I confess I have serious problems with the bit in the gospel passage where Jesus says v33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. While it is true that a few saints of the Church have given up virtually everything to serve their fellows in the name of Jesus, and while I have the deepest admiration for those like Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa, for myself, I can’t in all honesty ask others to take this step, because as long as I continue to enjoy a standard of living well above the poorest in the world, I have not won the right to do so.
I am only guessing, but I would like to suggest that I am not the only one who has come to the conclusion that following exactly in the footsteps of Christ seems well nigh impossible for real people who often appear to share characteristics of both the saint and the sinner.
For those discouraged by the apparent impossibility of getting anywhere near perfection, it may be of some comfort that Jesus was prepared to continue to work with those who showed signs of imperfection. Just think of some of his disciples. We can but hope he would have done the same for us. Most of us I suspect are too wedded to our possessions to give away our all to the poor, yet Jesus here in his parable is talking of a range of likely behaviour in response to the master’s absence. However this doesn’t quite let us off the hook. For example, we should forget that Jesus also said (in the last part of verse 48) that from whom much has been given, much will be expected.
If we choose to accept the positions of responsibility, or if we find ourselves blessed with talent or possessions, our responsibilities are correspondingly greater.
I suspect quite a few of us have a feeling of unease at the question ‘Is my life worthwhile?’ Bill Loader in his commentary on this passage suggests that moralising in reply won’t do it, or worse, offering what C T Studd once referred “neat little Bible confectionary” in the form of proof texts. Neither approach comes close to answering the genuine angst felt in such a question. Loader wisely suggests that ultimately the answer to this angst is an act of healing. People have genuine worries and ideally need support which identifies the pain very clearly – and gently – and offers healing.
Sometimes we hurry to put what we hope is wisdom into words. Maybe caring enough for someone is simply to be there for them in their time of worry. Maybe too, for ourselves, simply quietly reflecting on the words of Jesus may edge us closer to that moment when we can see meaning taking shape and form in our lives.
(The aim of this sermon, as with the other sermons on this site, is to provide a lectionary based resource to encourage people to think about their faith. If you have found the sermon to be helpful in this respect please share the website with others. If you disagree with the points made, or if you are aware of key issues which are missed, please share your thoughts in the comments section.)